On Aug. 11, Adam McKay was busy writing Anchorman 2 with Will Ferrell when he got a call from Jessica Elbaum, a fellow producer of Bachelorette, their latest film from Gary Sanchez Productions. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, and Lizzy Caplan as three high school BFFs, the pitch-black comedy had just premiered via video on demand a month ahead of its Sept. 7 theatrical debut as the first release from The Weinstein Company’s RADiUS label, which focuses on alternative distribution models. But even though he’d championed bringing writer-director Leslye Headland‘s play to the big screen, McKay didn’t exactly have high hopes for how the movie would fare on the small one. “We thought, ‘Ehhh,'” he says. “‘Maybe it’ll make a little bit of money.'”
Instead, Bachelorette (co-produced by BCDF Pictures) reached No. 1 on iTunes’ video-on-demand chart — the first time, it seems, that a film had ever hit that milestone before screening in theaters. “It was jaw-dropping,” says McKay. “I checked back again, like, three hours later, and it [was] still number one. We couldn’t believe it. People started calling us, friends of ours at other studios, going, ‘What the hell is that?'”
That could be the future of independent cinema. Thanks in part to the successful VOD releases of films like Margin Call and All Good Things (which also starred Dunst), indie filmmakers are increasingly turning to digital distribution to help audiences find their films. “When you do these VOD releases, you have a geographical footprint that far surpasses the widest theatrical release,” says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, one of the leading digital and theatrical distributors of indie films, like Goon and Melancholia (Dunst again!). Indeed, between cable and satellite providers and sites like Amazon and Google, RADiUS co-president Tom Quinn says Bachelorette was available to over 85 million people, and pulled in more than $523,000 in its first weekend — better than Moonrise Kingdom‘s much-heralded theatrical debut.
Quinn is also quick to point out, however, that Bachelorette has a long road ahead of it before landing even close to Moonrise Kingdom‘s $43 million total gross. “There are some people that view the multi-platform model as a pixie-dust cure-all for saving the industry,” he says. “You still have to have movies that people want to consume.” And audiences still need stars, or at least a gripping hook, to grab their attention. The hope is that a film’s VOD release can fuel word of mouth, while its theatrical release delivers a necessary imprimatur of legitimacy and media ink.
The model has at least one new convert. “I download movies. All my friends do it, especially my daughters,” says McKay. “But I had no idea it could catch like this.”